A piece in the ADM Gallery literally turns the spotlight onto the gallery walls themselves. One of a series of six works by Warren Khong, it’s a rectangle of wall simply highlighted by a spotlight. Other pieces in the exhibition of post-2000 Singapore art are just as conceptual, like Jane Lee’s sculptural paintings made from noodle-like strings of paint, or Kanchana Gupta’s compressed cubes of painted canvas (below). They’re strangely beautiful but also esoteric, exactly the sort of pieces that invite the question you don’t dare to ask: Is this art?
To Michelle Ho, who was recently appointed curator of the Singapore Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2019, this is precisely when she has succeeded. It shows she’s managed to articulate something people may not think of as conventionally beautiful or meaningful.
“Sometimes, artists dare to do something that hasn’t been done before, even at the risk of it being labelled as non-art,” she explains. “That, to me, is significant.”
The pieces all begin to make perfect sense when Michelle explains them in her even, patient voice. They’re the result of artists searching for a new understanding of what a painting could be by challenging the conventions and limitations of art.
Pursuing new ideas is second nature to Michelle, a former Straits Times Life! journalist who switched careers after getting her masters in curatorship and modern art at the University of Sydney.
She then spent eight years at the Singapore Art Museum (below), where she led the acquisition strategies of its contemporary art collection from 2013 to 2015 and was co-curator in the Singapore Biennale 2013. At NTU’s non-commercial ADM Gallery, she now has the leeway to display regional and international art that challenges or provokes, and provide artists with the chance to show experimental work.
“I believe every work is an opportunity for us to think about or reconsider the world in a different way. Isn’t that a wonderful thing?”
This is what she finds most rewarding – helping to realise artistic concepts that have not been seen before, such as the exhibition she and multidisciplinary artist Song-Ming Ang will present at the Venice Biennale 2019 (which starts May 11). Blending experimental music and conceptual art, it’s inspired by the series of “Music For Everyone” concerts organised by the Ministry of Culture in the 1970s and 1980s to encourage public appreciation of the arts, and it involves members of the public with no musical training playing the recorder in reinvented ways: “It’s also about the potential of amateurs as a force in art-making,” she explains. “That itself can be quite a subversive idea.”
“I hope we can become more open to alternative voices and positions,” she says. “And make art centres and museums safe spaces.”
This story was first published in the May 2018 issue of Her World.